Category Archives: Hotels

Need ideas for winter break? Why not Nicaragua!


Nicaragua as a travel destination is not on everyone’s radar, but had been popping up in some internet articles recently. Every time I would come across  the Central America country’s name, my brain immediately went to “Contras and Sandinistas, ” and thought, “Is it safe?” I was curious to find out what it offers the traveler.

So, I decided to find out on a family vacation. Yep, I went ALL in and took the family, but admittedly after some research and preparation. I wouldn’t risk taking my children somewhere about which I don’t feel comfortable.

All my concerns about safety were put to rest. The Nicaragua revolution and Iran Contra Affair took place in the 70s and 80s, and has of late been called the safest country in Central America, with only Chile being safer in Central and South America.

The government and business leaders have been developing its tourism, and are priming it to be the “next Costa Rica.” And why not? It has the largest area of primary growth rain forest north of the Amazon, volcanoes to explore, and Spanish colonial cities with distinctive architecture. It’s world renown beaches have been sought after for decades by surfers chasing the perfect wave.

What I didn’t realize, is that this small country has an such an interesting history; It is the first Latin America country to have a woman president.

All sounded intriguing… I was just concerned that we would be going “off season” or “wet season” which is our summer. However, I discovered a secret: The advantages of going during wet season is that everything is so green..and it really only rains late in the afternoon for a short period. On top of that, there is a period called something like “verano pequeno” or small summer, because  two weeks at the end of July it doesn’t rain at all.

So I booked during that time frame two different hotels on the Pacific Coast, south of Managua, near Tola. (Most travelers do visit the Pacific Coast because its roads are more developed.)

One – Mukul Resort… swanky and upscale, and the other – Rancho Santana, a smaller more modest property . I wanted to get a taste of both places, because they are very different. And guess what? It only rained for maybe five minutes the entire trip!

Rancho Santana

We stayed at Rancho Santana first. I really didn’t know what to expect, even after reviewing the website many times… it is hard to capture 2700 acres of lush land, and two miles of shoreline on a few web pages.

Rancho Santana

But it is actually very simple in person. The Inn at Rancho Santana is the heart of the entire ranch area, and is situated right on the Pacific Ocean. The Inn was remodeled a few years ago, and fits the landscape perfectly, without giving up rustic elegance. More importantly, the  architecture feels authentic to the property.

There are 17 rooms at the inn, but we stayed in one of the condos that are part of the property, because they offered our family of five more room. We got a three bedroom, two bathroom place with a kitchen and living room for about $300 a night. It was right near the main hotel and pool area. The only downside is that each condo has a different owner, different style, and was not part of the recent remodel.

All of the rooms at the Inn revolve around a courtyard, and are right near all the action, like the
quick breakfast cafe that makes the most delicious Nicaraguan breakfasts.

They were my favorite meals the entire trip: eggs, with guacamole toast and cabbage over a homemade tortilla. We enjoyed our flavorful breakfast on a lovely patio overlooking the property with an ocean view.

A little further down a walkway is the main restaurant, with a bar and pool table – which led to many hours of late-night family fun. The restaurant is lovely – with seating over the dramatic waves at night.

There is also bocce! A family favorite. And remember, all of this is right in the center of the ranch.

Right nearby are all of the fun features – the pool, cabanas, outdoor bar, and the perfect perch to watch the most incredible sunsets.

I would consider myself a “sunset specialist”… and these from Rancho Santana were the most dramatic and beautiful of anywhere I have ever experienced in the world.

There were plenty of activities to keep all of us busy. The ranch has five different beaches from which to choose. All are pretty, and offer something different – whether it be sand surfing, or regular surfing, but our favorite beach was Los Perros because it had the open-air taqueria right on the sand, next to hammocks to nap off the quesadillas and garden-fresh salsas.

No other word describes it better than “chill.” Grab a cerveza and a taco in a corn tortilla that is made right there, and enjoy it on the beach? It was a nice touch.

Another thing to point out, is that the beaches here are almost empty… and rugged, which means there are no umbrellas and chairs set up for hotel guests to use. At Los Perros beach, you can request chairs for the sand. This is something to consider because you might not want your children in the sun all day, so pack an umbrella or ask where you can get one.

We broke up our time on the sand with surf lessons and hiking around the property’s trails. The one thing I think the ranch could improve is the gym. There is yoga in a nice environment, but the gym is across the street, and is nothing really nice – more of a high school gym.

On one of our most memorable days, we hired a guide from the hotel to take us into Granada.

Granada is Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city, situated right on Lake Nicaragua. It’s home to many Spanish-Colonial landmarks that have survived pirate invasions, and the town square is just eye candy with all the vibrant colors of the structures.

The trip into town was a fantastic way to break up all the beach time with some culture. I always love talking to the local guides and learning about life in their native town or country, and the two hour drive into Granada gave us time to do just that. The drive also allowed us to see the countryside..and sadly, the poverty. I can see why the guides do not like to make the trip home in the dark – there are many large animals that roam the roads freely.

On the way, to Granada we stopped to hike Volcano Mombacho, and also zip line across the rain forest.

There were very few tourists – which was so refreshing. We didn’t have to wait on any line for the canopy tours, and because it was quiet, we saw some baby monkeys on the hike.

Once in Granada, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the middle of all the colorful Spanish-Colonial churches and cafes. It really is a lovely town and something to see. I only wish we had had more time to wander around.

At the wharf of Granada, there are boatmen offering people rides on Lake Nicaragua. What is interesting about this boat ride, is that there are hundreds of islets in Lake Nicaragua, which provide habitats for birds and animals, and there are some that have one house on them for people to live on their own private islands.

The islets all range in size, and were formed when rocks flew from a volcano eruption thousands of years ago.

We took the boat ride, and had one of the most epic moments of the trip. There is one island that has a handful of monkeys living on it.

As we approached the monkey island, the boatman slowed down and eventually stopped right in front of it so the kids could see the monkeys.

The most astonishing thing then happened – one of the monkeys jumped on board… and walked directly over to the driver and gave him a long hug.

It was remarkable to witness the capacity for emotion these monkeys have. They clearly recognized the boatman, as he takes people out 1-2 times a day he says, and sometimes offers them food.

My children were stunned silent..but then of course wanted that important selfie with the monkey!

It was a nice outing, especially at sunset with the volcano in the background. We accomplished all of this sightseeing in one day between 8:30 AM and 7PM. It was worth it, and the price at Rancho to do this was substantially less than what it costs at Mukul to hire one of their guides.

When we moved to Mukul after a few days, let’s just say the sexy, open-air lobby grabbed me.

But there was also a hugely impressive array of glass bottles of alcohol set up right there – so right away I felt a different vibe than at Rancho Santana.

Our rooms (little bungalows in the trees called bohios) were beautiful, but small, and unfortunately, not conducive for families. We had to book two bohios because the most one bohio could sleep is 3 people.

The resort does have 12 2-bedroom beach villas, with their own pools, but they were approximately $1000 more a night than two bohios. The bohios were fine for privacy, but they aren’t so close to each other, and made organizing the family a little more complicated.

The nice touch is that coffee is delivered to your bohio every morning at a time you request. The coffee comes with a couple cookies, but I don’t understand why this is still the case – there are aggressive birds around the resort who are not afraid to come after those cookies and disrupt your peaceful morning coffee on your deck, so beware 🙂

This resort is also right on the beach, with the pool steps away.

Wander down the beach a bit and there is a cafe and a recreation area with volleyball courts and water sports. We took another surf lesson, for about double the price of Rancho Santana – but, as the instructor promised, it really was the best surf lesson I’ve ever had.

The nice thing about Mukul’s beach is that there are dozens of palapas with thatched rooves under which a handful of people can lay on the lounge chairs.

There is a beautiful spa and golf course, but the golf course was not in the best shape, which is surprising because we were there during the wet season, so you’d expect it to be green and lush. But at Mukul, we strangely felt like it was “off season” – not as many servers near the pool so you had to track someone down to order food or a drink, the cafe closed earlier than normal, our morning coffee wasn’t always delivered when we requested the night before, etc. It just seemed understaffed.  In all fairness, I had a friend visit Mukul during the winter, and had a better experience with the service.

If you are thinking about going to Nicaragua – here are some nuts and bolts:
Flying into Nicaragua is actually easier than one may think. The easiest way is to fly into Managua, and either book the hotel’s transportation service to pick you up and drive you for a couple hours to the resort, or take a 1/2 hour connecting flight to the small regional Costa Esmeralda airport, which is about 15-20 minutes from either resort.

Or you can fly into Costa Rica’s Liberia airport, where there are more flight options. From there I would recommend taking a flight into Costa Esmeralda – If you have the hotel pick you up at the airport and drive to either resort, it’s a long rough 4 hour drive with a stop at the border.

Flight times from the following cities to Managua: Dallas – 3 hours, New York – 6 1/2.
Flight times from the following cities to Liberia; Baltimore – 4.5 hours, Los Angeles 5.5 ***Southwest and Jet Blue fly from certain destinations to Liberia.

Happy Travels!

The other California wine country: Paso Robles

Northern California’s idyllic wine country has faced its share of disaster and unthinkable heartbreak. . Although there are parts of the wine region that remain unscorched after the devastating fires, and firefighters have gained ground, industry insiders are recommending postponing travel plans to the area since a number of roads are closed, air quality is poor,and thousands of emergency crews are still working away.

Sadly..they  are not sure what impact the infernos will have on tourism. Understandably, of course, because people may read the headlines, and devastating stories, stay away from beloved Napa and Sonoma for who knows how long.

As of this weekend Visit Napa Valley listed an enormous number of wineries and hotels that are currently closed…however there are also some that are still open. If you have travel plans in the near future, obviously check with your hotel first. Check here for more updates www.visitnapavalley.com and www.sonomavalley.com

Even though the it might not be the best time to visit –  please, when the wine country is ready for visitors…one of the best things we travelers can do is spend out travel dollars in the region.

Paso Robles WIne Country

Paso Robles WIne Country

But if you are hankering for harvest season in a vineyard anytime soon, Visit Napa valley is suggesting other wine regions – I’d like to share my experience in another California wine heaven, Paso Robles. Oct 20-22 is Harvest Wine Weekend there!

Downtown Paso Robles

Downtown Paso Robles

Paso flies a little lower on the travel radar than popular Napa and Sonoma, but there is charm in its old world, small town feel. And whatever you do – don’t think the wines are any less delicious. 🙂

Located half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in San Luis Obispo County, it is not a far detour from Sonoma and Napa. There are more than 40 different wine grape varietals planted here..and the AVA has more than 200 wineries to visit!

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Some of the more well-known wineries are JUSTIN – which helped put Paso on the map with its Wine Spectator 1997 award for one of the top wines in the world – Meridian,  and J. Lohr. I am definitely no wine expert, but visited a few that I felt were definitely creative, with a youthful spirit not so typical in established wineries. I love learning the stories behind the winemaker and wineries, so please indulge me… and you may like learning about them as well. By the way – most of these wineries listed require reservations, and charge a tasting fee that is often waved if you end up purchasing wine.

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Booker Wines. Named after the two orphan Booker brothers who purchased the land back in the 1920s, the Bookers were not only farmers, but were some of the areas greatest philanthropists. When they died, they left 100% of their estate to charity according to the winery website.

The new owners have given new wings to the fruitful roots – you can feel it in the tasting room with the minimalist but chic decor…and you understand it in their philosophy., I love that they practice biodynamic farming … meaning they believe everything on the farm (soil, plants, livestock) is interrelated, and the health of one influences the health of the other.

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The cute bulldog on premises doesn’t hurt. Appointments necessary. www.bookerwines.com

Turley WInery

Turley WInery

Turley Wines. What makes this winery interesting is that most of the wines are single vineyard… which means they are premium grapes that the winemaker did not want to water down by blending with lesser quality. And – they are all certified organic.

They specialize in old vine Zinfadel and Petite Sirah.

Their philosophy, off the website: “We make wines we love, to be shared with those you hold most dear.”  We felt it – we had a great large group tasting outside with a nearby view of the vineyards and the people there made it a festive time. www.turleywinecellars.com

 

Linne Calodo Winery

Linne Calodo Winery

Linne Calodo The story behind this winery might be one of the most compelling in terms of following one’s passion. Founder Matt Trevisan started making wine when he was working as a fork lift driver, living out of his car..and sold all of his assets to buy labels and bottles for his first vintage.

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Now, he owns one of the loveliest wineries, and makes some admired wine…and holds the reputation of being “one of the hottest cult winemakers,” according to a wine writer of The Gray Report.

Linne Calodo Winery

Linne Calodo Winery

The winemaker now makes about 7-10 blends..largely Rhone varietals and Zinfadel… and the winemaker likes to use “esoteric varietals from all over the world.” The philosophy: “Love + farming + science + art + philosophy + passion = great wine.” www.linnecalodo.com

L"Aventure Winery

L”Aventure Winery

L’Aventure Because of consistently high wine scores, this winery has been informally coined “The Grand Cru of Paso Robles.”

Honestly, it was the most casual, and underwhelming of tasting rooms, but I understand there is a new tasting room that may contribute to a better ambiance- but what does it matter to true oenophiles? The wine is high quality and is consistently listed as one of the top wines from Paso Robles.

The owner and winemaker Stephan Asseo trained in Burgundy, France…made wine there for a little while..but then wanted to be more creative than the AOC laws in France would allow. So he began looking around the world for a new place to make his wines – from South Africa to Lebanon to Argentina to Napa… and decided upon Paso Robles. www.aventurewine.com

Lodging

Hotel Cheval

Hotel Cheval

After all the wine tasting.. you are going to want to most comfortable lodging to relax – and Hotel Cheval is perfect. I personally love boutique hotels – and this one oozes warmth. With only 16 rooms, it is not too crowded…yet because of it’s small size, you need to book far in advance.

I can almost guarantee a great night’s sleep  here- the beds are so comfortable. I even purchased the same pillows the hotel uses for my own house.

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The patio off the bar and restaurant is a charming place to listen to music before dinner…

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and  we used the courtyard near the rooms for late night card games on warm nights. As I mentioned before, the hotel is only a half block from the main town, so it is convenient. www.hotelcheval.com

TIps

There can be great distances between the wineries… you may want to look into a driving service that specializes in touring the wineries. The drivers are used to storing any wine you purchase  well, and keeping it cool…and they often have good recommendations.

Bringing kids?  I think it’s better to indulge yourself kid-free in the fantastic food and wine and tranquilizing landscape, but if you must, here you will find some good suggestions: http://www.travelpaso.com/mavericks/mom

Even though the disastrous fires of Northern California have all of us concerned for the area, local economy, and for those who have lost their homes or loved ones,  there are other wine  regions to try. And.. remember Oct 20-22 happens to be Harvest Wine Weekend in Paso Robles!!

But – as soon as the time is right – we can really help the businesses affected in the disasters by visiting Napa and Sonoma again. In the mean time, be sure to order California wines on any menu, or buy them at the store.

For other ways to help – www.visitnapavalley.com and www.sonomavalley.com .

 

 

 

 

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All Eyes On DC: My Top Things To Do With Kids In Our Nation’s Capital

This is probably the one non-political post about Washington DC today – so if you want a break from transition of power topics, read on!

On other days, when Washington DC is not so crowded, it is one of the best places I’ve ever been to take children – kids of all ages for that matter. Here are my top eight things to do in our nation’s capital:

 1) You gotta see the National Mall and Memorial Parks. This area is made up of greenspace, as well as memorials and monuments honoring former presidents and fallen soldiers, to name a few. It’s a nice walk all around, but it’s longer than it looks on the map. There are bikes you can take out right there – but be warned, there are few for small children.  Also – right near the Jefferson Memorial is Tidal Basin, where you can rent paddle boats and see the monuments from a distance, but from the water!  Tip: The Washington Monument is closed until spring of 2019, so you can’t go up to the top. When it reopens, there can be quite a line to go up… go around late dinner time, right before the sun sets and  when all the tourists are eating.

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2) The Capitol – Touring the Capitol is more than a look at the workings of government. The art and architecture are impressive, and stories about them are not lost on kids. Tours are free and try to book before -but if you don’t some same day tickets are available. Visitors can also see the House and Senate galleries, but that takes planning ahead. Tip: Be sure to go to the Library of Congress right next door – fascinating, and it has inauguration souvenirs and speeches on display, if you get inspired today. https://www.loc.gov/

3) The Smithsonian Museums – What people DONT tell you is that you could spend two or three days just exploring http://www.si.edu/Visit/Hours

The Air and Space Museum is overwhelming – so much stimuli, you have to take it in small doses..There’s also the Natural History Museum and the American Art Museum , just to name a few. ALL are free!!

4) The International Spy Museum – After all the culture from the Smithsonians, this is a fun, but well curated collection of spy culture history. Intriguing for mystery-seekers of all ages, it features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts on display to the public.

5) The White House – aka Mr Trump’s residence now. No matter what your politics, it’s a must see. BUT you really need to plan about 6 months in advance to get tickets through a member of Congress. When you book through your member of Congress, and need special hearing or visual assistance, you need to let them know in advance.

6) National Archives – Go on your own “national treasure” hunt and see where the Declaration of Independence is, as well as other documents from our nation’s beginnings.

7) The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing: The kids will love to see how money is printed, and how we protect from counterfeiters.  https://www.moneyfactory.gov/services/takeatour.html

8) Just outside of Washington DC , almost 15 miles away – but SO worth the trip , is Mount Vernon – the plantation home of George and Martha Washington. Right on the banks of the Potomac, this is one of the most kid-friendly and interactive attractions. The tour of the Washington home gets intimate, showing the very room where George Washington took his last breath. The museum on the property explains slavery, war, in relationship to Washington’s life, and includes a look at personal moments – like George and Martha’s relationship – in very clear terms for all. You can even see Washington’s infamous dentures!  http://www.mountvernon.org/

Happy Travels!

Fall Trips: Why Leaf Peeping is Changing & Tips For Your Trip

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Fall:  As we usher in the new season, there are recurring themes, events, traditions we look forward to – leaf peeping being one of them.

Travelers seeking vibrant fall foliage bring in millions of dollars to local economies – Leaf peeping is quite popular!

The above photo is from a fall foliage trip my husband & I took to Vermont & other ares of New England.  If you are thinking about a trip to see the multi-shades of autumn, either this year or in the future, here are some things you may not know:

1) Climate change is pushing the leaf changing time back – the warmer the fall, the later the color. There are many good sources to check the timing of your peeping, one reliable good ol’ stand by is the farmer’s Almanac: http://farmersalmanac.com/peak-fall-foliage-dates/

2) New England is NOT the only place to see leaves change color – although those quintessential church steeples look pretty darn  cute in the photos with vibrant orange leaves – there are many other spectacular and less crowded places to watch Mother Nature’s miracle unfold. Sonoma, Ca… Taos, NM..and the Smoky Mountains are just to name a few.

3) While this season does book up in terms of hotels, and they book up way in advance –  look for unorthodox alternatives. Most people want a cozy, romantic trip to a B &B or quaint hotel – so why not look into a business hotel over the weekend, when it is less crowded with business travelers? Or here’s your chance to try Air BnB…

4) Think about biking around to see the leaves. That way you get closer to the spectacle, can take more engaging photos, & won’t cause a traffic jam by driving really slow so you can observe. Plus – the fresh air is crisp this time of year – all good!

5) Look into harvest festivals, or apple stands, corn mazes – there are so many seasonal festivities around the leaves changing that may not be part of your big city life, if you do live in a big city 😉

Enjoy the season –

 

 

 

Hotel of the Week: Paws Up in Montana… Glamping!

Paws Up Resort, Montana

Paws Up Resort, Montana

I posted some photographs on Instagram and Twitter of a trip I took recently, and got a lot of feedback – it seems there is a lot of curiosity about Paws Up Resort in Montana.

Paws Up Resort

Paws Up Resort

And rightly so… any place that combines unspoiled, wide open, gorgeous wilderness with first class creature comforts certainly stands intriguing.

What is “Paws Up?” Paws Up is a 37,000 acre working dude ranch located in Greenough Montana, in the Blackfoot Valley. Missoula is the closest airport about 35 miles away. DSC02381

But it’s not your typical dude ranch -not a chance partner.

What makes it stand out is that it offers luxury tents as accommodations – that’s right – no pitching a little pup tent with a polyester sleeping bag as your berth- guests get a comfortable bed, headbaord and all,  with a down comforter and electric bed warmer for those really cold Montana mornings…which by the way, are super cold. It is hard to get out of that bed.

DSC02382 In addition to real beds, you get a tile-floored bathroom with a  porcelain sink and toilet with plumbing inside your tent. It makes some chain business hotel bathrooms look like out houses.

This, dear traveler, is GLAMPING.

The tents are set up for families, and ours had a separate room IN the tent for the kids-…kids all slept on cots, so the beds are reserved for the grown ups. 🙂

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TIP: I really enjoyed having a tent right on the river. It’s a nice view, and we could go out and fish anytime – the resort makes the rods available with your stay. Kids also enjoyed skimming rocks on the river.

The resort also offers luxury homes to rent… but the novelty of the luxury tent is really what makes this places special, in my opinion . But the homes might be better for large family groups wanting to stay together.

Now before you get all excited  in your boots, here’s the kicker:  Paw’s Up ain’t cheap cowboy.

The tent or house rates are one thing – starting at $1200 a night depending on the season – but you’re going to want to take part in all of the activities that Paws Up coordinates so you can explore the many acres of wilderness. And that’s what you really need to take into consideration.

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Fly fishing is an absolutely gorgeous experience… It is a beautiful and peaceful day out on the Blackfoot River- to relax with kids on the water, with no electronics, was beyond pleasurable. DSC02402 DSC02417

We spotted eagles, and other wildlife out on the boat, in addition to our catch of the day. My 9 year old even caught a fish.

You do need to know that no more than 2 can go in one boat at a time, so if you have a larger family you’ll have to split up. And the price is a staggering $450 a boat for a four hour ride, with a guide If you have four people in your family, that’s $900.

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Another activity we tried is paintball in the pine trees… The resort staff takes you out in a big patch of wilderness (not hard to find here) for a thrilling afternoon of washable paint warfare in the towering trees. It was fun -& yes, it does hurt when you get hit by the paint pellets, but it didn’t seem to bother the 20 adolescent boys with whom my daughter and I played.

Other activities offered are horse back riding, kayaking, hiking, river rafting, hot air ballooning, and much more. MAKE SURE you read each activity carefully before you go- there are age restrictions for some, so plan in advance to avoid disappointment if you have younger kids who may not be able to do everything. Some activities fill up so book as soon as you can. IMG_7667

Archery  is included with your stay… as well as access to a fitness center – but who has time for a gym when you are there?

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Honestly, you don’ t have to take part in activities every day if you choose not to. Sitting out by the river with a book for part of the day is peaceful, and you can take unorganized hikes as a family on your own.

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If you stay in a tent, the morning starts gathered near a campfire, while your tent butler makes you breakfast of your choice. The tents are all arranged in clusters, so you eat with members of about 5 other tents.

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The resort is rather spread out… it is 37,000 acres large, so you really feel the vast wilderness. Although that makes it a little bit more inconvenient for getting around the resort, and getting to your activities on time, it makes you feel how big and open Montana really is – it’s the 4th largest state by area. There are shuttles within the resort to take you where you need to be.

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The food is good, and there is a restaurant for other meals… watch in the summer though there are a lot of bees on the restaurant patio.

Paws Up offers different packages for families, and also has babysitting services if you have small children. If you can afford it, it makes for a trip the kids will love, a trip where you will spend many fun hours together with little distraction of electronics, and a trip where you will feel very comfortable in your home on the range.

For other glamping options, at different price points also try:

www.elcapitancanyon.com

www.terravelotours.com

www.pawsup.com

Happy Travels!

The Hotel that Inspired a Golden Globe Winning Film

I was so happy to see the film “Grand Budapest Hotel” win Best Picture Musical/Comedy last night at the Golden Globes!

I have seen it three times now, on flights I took last summer. Loved it every time – it is an eccentric but charming movie following a concierge at the height a grand dame hotel’s popularity during the period between World War I and World War II.  I’m no movie critic, but Ralph Fiennes is captivating – he brings to this role a freshness anyone can appreciate – very different from his roles in the “English Patient” or the “Harry Potter” series. And… there are some unexpected, fun cameos throughout.

Corinthia Budapest Hotel

Yes, there is a travel theme – thus, my enthusiasm. If you love being in hotels, that is the film’s backdrop. But there is allegedly some real life inspiration for this. Some have drawn parallels between the Grand Budapest Hotel and the hey day and even architecture of an existing Budapest hotel, the Corinthia Budapest in Budapest, Hungary. Filmmaker Wes Anderson reportedly stayed there, and the similarities are striking.

Corinthia Budapest Hotel

The Corinthia Budapest has quite a history – opened in 1896, it survived wars and the Hungarian Revolution… In the upcoming months, I will have a story about that on Travel Detective on PBS member stations on a recurring segment “Hotels with a Past.”

By the way, if you can get to Budapest, I recommend it. It has has areas that are as lovely as other top European destinations, and is less expensive… with historic sights and a great nightlife atmosphere.

In the meantime, catch the film! In a surprise win over “Birdman”, it may have some Oscar traction….

 

Hotel of the Week: Orlando, for Less than $200 – Top Destination for the Holidays!

Magic Kingdom Main StreetAccording to an Orbitz travel survey, Orlando ranks as  the top place travelers are going this holiday season.While many of us are visiting Grandma, many more are apparently visiting Mickey and Minnie 🙂

IMG_1114I ‘ve been to Orlando a dozen times for work & pleasure, visiting  Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, Universal Orlando, and all the other attractions. So I gotta tell you: For as much as Disney is SO great at making family vacations memorable and fun, choosing a hotel at Walt Disney World Resort can be VERY overwhelming. I am not kidding you when I say that if you look for a hotel at Walt Disney World Resort online, 30 very different lodging options pop up. Who has time to research which one is best?

(You can go through travel agents who specialize in Disney – They are also in the know about meal plans, ticket packages, etc & can steer you to the best savings. )

Most people booking the hotel themselves look at the price point for his or her budget- and there is a wide range…from thousands of dollars, to hundreds a night.

This past summer, my family and I tried one of their moderate/budget hotels –  we were only there two nights, with more time spent at the park than in our room. I was curious to see what $180 got you for one room where my entire family of five could stay together – two queen beds, and one pull down bed with  REAL mattress, not a roll away. A little squeezed, but as I said, the kids were up at the crack of dawn to get to the Magic Kingdom, and we were out late.

Port Orleans Riverside Walt Disney World ResortWe stayed at Port Orleans Resort – Riverside and were pleasantly surprised.

Port Orleans Resort RiversideLike all the Disney resorts, this one had a theme:  The Louisiana Bayou,  – think swamps and riverboats. Other Walt Disney resort themes are the Animal Kingdom Lodge, All Star Music, All Star Sports Resort, and a Beach Club to name a few.

Port Orleans wasn’t one of the more exciting themes for kids, but there is something nice about being in a tranquil setting near nature – ponds, greenery, etc – rather than neon lights and loud music. You’ll get plenty of that on the rides at Orlando’s theme parks.

Port Orleans Riverside, Walt Disney World Resort

The tranquil design is done really well -but lends itself to  be spread out on a lot of land. So if you can’t walk a lot, or get in late at night, try to request a room close to the main lobby BEFORE you arrive.  There are multiple pools and lounging areas and can make it more confusing when not in the light of day.

The rooms themselves are an ok size – But most importantly – they are clean. That is a consistent Disney trait. Port Orleans has connecting rooms for families as well.

Port Orleans Riverside

One trait that makes this resort unique is that it has a 95 foot waterslide on “Ol Man Island” – a man made island that is part of the hotel with a swimming pool and fishin’ hole. Think Tom Sawyer. Around the resort, there are five other pools. When it gets too hot in the middle of the day at the parks – and it DOES – it’s nice to come back & take a afternoon break. Although Disney does put spray misters on some of the park’s ride lines, they really can’t keep everyone cool – those lines can get really uncomfortable if they are long.

If you are a rare person who sleeps in late while at Walt Disney World, or anticipate being jet lagged, request a room away from any of the pools because they can be loud. Some of the favorite rooms are Magnolia Bend mansion rooms… closer to everything… & the Alligator Bayou Lodges are more rustic, & spread out.

photo 1There aren’t many places to eat here – one casual sit down restaurant open only for dinner, and heavy on Southern food – Boatwright Dining Hall.. or a food court with buffet service that is packed for breakfast!

photo 2One note – there are some Disney resorts like the Contemporary that are walking distance to the Magic Kingdom. Port Orleans is one of the farthest resorts from the park – it’s near Downtown Disney. (For those of you who know, Downtown Disney is like a Disney outdoor mall area, not part of the theme park.)  However – Disney offers great complimentary shuttle service to its resorts and parks. It is about a 15 minute shuttle ride from Port Orleans Riverside- which does seem like a long time at the end of a hot sweaty day at the Magic Kingdom- but for $180 a night? Worth it.

With tickets to the Magic Kingdom looming near the $100 range, my theory is that travelers will start compensating by staying at more of the budget hotels, not eating at the restaurants as much, and buying fewer souvenirs. If that’s the case – Port Orleans -Riverside should be considered.

 https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/port-orleans-resort-riverside/

War Memorials are Worth Visiting Beyond Veteran's Day

Veteran's DayMany Americans today are giving thanks and appreciation to military personnel who have served in our wars. Around the country there are church services, parades, and moments of silence… as well as each of our own personal odes of gratitude.

Many of these formalities are taking place today at monuments or memorials specifically for our soldiers. But, while all the ceremony is nice, let’s not forget about these poignant public statues and reminders even when it’s not Veteran’s Day. There are so many educational displays dedicated to the remembrance of war and the warriors – many are great for families.

This summer I visited what may be the granddaddy of places to visit memorials – Our National Mall in Washington DC, where, in a matter of a couple hours you can visit three different war memorials.

Korean War Memorial, Washington DCThe Korean War Memorial happens to be my favorite – only because it is so different, and can be haunting when seen at low light.

National World War 2 Memorial

The National World War 2 Memorial is beautiful…

Vietnam Memorial from veteranstoday.comAnd the Vietnam Memorial is strikingly personal and human because of the more than 58,000 names you can read of those who sacrificed their lives in the war.

If you visit – here are some tips: In the summer, go at dusk when it’s not so hot and not so crowded. Pick a time when most travelers are eating dinner. BUT  – don’t wait until it’s too dark. The Vietnam Memorial is hard to see after dusk even though it is lit from the sidewalk.

Bring bottled water in a backpack or something, along with sunscreen and an umbrella. Wacky Washington DC weather can be humid, strikingly hot, and rainy all in the same minute.

bike rentals

Also – another way to get around is to rent bikes right there on the mall. The only downer is there are no kid-sized bikes, so teens and adults only.

Washington DC is obviously not the only place to learn about the sacrifices of our vets, and appreciate the memorials built for them. Here is a link to many others devoted to our men and women who devoted so much: www.usa.gov/Federal-Employees/Veterans-Memorials.shtml

Yes the pomp and circumstance is nice at many of these monuments on Veteran’s Day. But if you’d like to spend a more peaceful time, reflecting on our history with fewer people around, these special memorials are worth the visit year round.

And…In case you didn’t know – Veteran’s Day is the anniversary of the signing of the armistice which ended World War 1.

Thank you.

 

 

Hotel of the Week: A Place Where Teens Will Roll Their Eyes… in Amazement

So I am officially a parent who doesn’t have a clue. According to my 13 year old son, anyway. More than ever I am getting the exasperated look from him like I am from a different planet. Here is the conversation yesterday, as I was helping him with his science experiment that I hadn’t fully read yet.

Him: “Mom, how should I measure my geyser?”

Me: “Geyser… what geyser? ”

Him: ” The one that goes up”

Me: “What do you mean? I thought you needed to drop Mentos into a Diet Coke from a distance?”

Him, eyes rolling “Mom, everyone knows when you drop Mentos in a Diet Coke it causes a geyser – it’s OBVIOUS. Nevermind. ”

Guess I must have missed that viral video.

I thought about many things… including how long does attitude this last… and, just because my life with years of this flashed in front of me, what kind of summer vacation would keep teens happy.

So I am updating an article I wrote about wilderness lodges in Alaska – where I met many teens who loved the adventure.

Tutka Bay WIlderness Lodge, from Withinthewild.com

Tutka Bay WIlderness Lodge, from Withinthewild.com

Visiting a wilderness lodge is not as easy as taking a cruise through the Last Frontier, and is not your typical hotel.  There will most likely be a lot of driving to get there…but what a novel way to see the country. The wilderness lodge offers activities as well as meals and a place to stay. It is exactly the kind of travel destination I love to recommend: Sort of off the beaten path…great for kids…lots to do in the great outdoors.

Kids who are used to being plugged in and electronically entertained are probably going to be happier on a cruise, where there is never a shortage of modernization. However, if you want to get your kids away from that…my driving trip through  Alaska exposed me to SO many cool things, and I felt closer to nature. Granted, a cruise ship can take you through passages that you normally wouldn’t get to see….and there are some cruise lines that have biologists on board to teach kids about their environment  – so a ship is not all pools and play stations.

Tutka Bay Wilderness Lodge

Tutka Bay Wilderness Lodge

But the most memorable and teen-attractive thing I encountered on  my Alaska by road trip  is that I stayed at  Tutka Bay Wilderness Lodge. Out in the middle of no freaking where, this place is so peaceful. And rugged. We spent some time in Homer, than took a water taxi to the lodge.

scenery

It is located at the southern end of Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula… on eleven acres. There is a main lodge, and six private guest accommodations, so you really feel like you are spending time with your family. The lodge offers organized excursions, so it makes taking day adventures easier.

img_0546_edited

We went bear viewing…kayaking with otters…and deep sea fishing. After a full day out in the fresh air, there are hearty home cooked meals and a hot tub awaiting. A family with teenagers and pre teens was staying there the same time I was , and the kids said it was their best vacation EVER. I was sold.

There are other wilderness lodges in Alaska…  they are unique to the region. Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge is high end and nice I understand, but I liked the owners at Tutka Bay.  One website to check for other wilderness lodges is www.alaska.org/where-to-stay/wilderness-lodges or  Withinthewild.com

I’m not going to act like everything is easy about traveling this way  – it is a lot more work getting around the huge state of Alaska this way, driving or flying from town to town..it’s not like there are places to stop and ask for directions in the middle of practically nowhere. And not a lot of convenient restaurants. So if that doesn’t sound like an adventure, or if you have really young kids then maybe a cruise is for you. Or stick to one place like Denali National Park. But the teens I met loved it.

From Alaska.org

From Alaska.org

Alaska’s not a luxurious place. It is unpolished, but beautiful. You will find your soul there. There is no Four Seasons… no hotel spa. Not that kind of trip…but wonderful and real. Definitely take the kids. Best time to go, since kids are out of school and weather is nice, is summer – and Tutka Bay is only open May-Sept.  – “OBVIOUSLY”. 🙂

www.tutkabaylodge.com

Harry Potter Opening & What They Don't Tell You About Visiting Universal Orlando

The brand new Universal Orlando attraction, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley, is officially open as of this morning! Enthusiastic fans showed up at 4 AM EST for an 8 AM EST open… and lines at the time of this writing were reportedly 5 hours to check out the second Harry Potter themed adventure at Universal Orlando in Florida.

This latest Harry Potter themed area is at Universal Studios, where as the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade is at Universal Islands of Adventure – the sister park walking distance away. It becomes less confusing once you visit. And visit recently, I did!

Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley Universal Orlando

Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley Universal Orlando

Here is a photo of what it looks like, without any of the barricades.

Kings Cross Station, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley Universal Orlando

Kings Cross Station, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley Universal Orlando

There are plenty of articles to describe Diagon Alley, and what the fanfare is about, but I want to share with you things I discovered about which you may not read.

1) Because Walt Disney World Resort is also in Orlando, and offers so many amazing resorts of all different price points and themes, many visitors stay at a Disney hotel and then venture over to Universal. BUT  – if you stay at a Universal upper-end, premium resort, you get perks that even Disney hotels don’t offer to it’s own parks.

For instance – —Fastpasses to all the rides except Harry Potter.

—-Early admittance to Harry Potter Hogsmeade (not the newer Harry Potter Diagon Alley) . Enter the park an hour before open to experience one of the most popular attractions there.

—-$20 off ticket price that you would pay buying at the park

2) Having said that, let me dig a little deeper into those perks. You will read different things on various forums as to whether the Fastpasses are worth it. I found them to be worth it. Lines to rides were significantly shorter. If you stay only one night at a Universal resort, you still get two fast passes if you buy a 2 day ticket.

3) The other perk: Early admittance to Harry Potter Hogsmeade: Not worth it. And don’t be fooled into thinking you get on all the rides with this early admittance – just Harry Potter Hogsmeade.

We went in the park the hour early, and there was still an hour wait for the Harry Potter rides.  But – we were there for two nights, and each night at around 8PM we could walk right up to the rides, with NO line. It is very cool to ride the Harry Potter Dragon Challenge roller coaster watching the sun set by the way. So sleep in and visit Hogsmeade later in the day.

4) If you visit in summer when it is very very hot and humid, start at the park around 2 PM… It is so pleasant right around 4 until closing, and the lines were a lot shorter, and you can still see a lot of the parks.

photo

5) It can rain a lot in summer. Some roller coasters close in the rain – so AS SOON as you see some dark clouds, head for some of the indoor rides, especially at Universal Studios where there are many 3D rides. The lines for those attractions grow longer once the other rides close temporarily for rain.

6) Some of the food concessions don’t stay open until closing, but City Walk, the stores and restaurants you walk through to get to Islands of Adventure stays open late. If you don’t want to leave the park to go to City Walk, plan accordingly.

7) This is my OMG tip: Parents, pace yourselves. There are SO many 3D rides and coasters that shake and spin you, if you go on all of them like I did, you may be feeling woozy. But don’t miss Spiderman. Avant -garde when it opened about a decade ago, it is still my favorite ride 🙂 For detailed information about the fan-crazed opening to Diagon Alley, and details about the attraction, visit www.Orlandoinformer.com  or www.Universalorlando.com

Happy summer travels!